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Bad Timing: Israel Allows Oil Exploration in Golan

Akiva Eldar writes that the decision to allow a US energy company to explore for oil in the Golan is not meant to antagonize President Obama in advance of his visit to Israel, but a sign that Israel considers the Golan an integral part of the state.
Labourers reinforce the fence near Israel's border with Syria in the Golan Heights February 14, 2013. Israel captured the Golan Heights from Syria in the 1967 Middle East war and annexed the territory in 1981, a move not recognised internationally. REUTERS/Baz Ratner (POLITICS) - RTR3DSEM

Ever since the start of Syria’s civil war, President Bashar al-Assad has tried to paint the revolt against his regime in the blue-and-white hues of Israel’s flag. In the very first days of the uprising, he sent young Palestinians to storm the border fence on the Golan Heights. Last month Israel was linked to the bombing of a weapons convoy making its way from the outskirts of Damascus to the Lebanese border. While strategists in Jerusalem continue to discuss ways to thwart the smuggling of long-range missiles to Hezbollah, last Saturday the IDF transferred seven wounded Syrians who showed up at the border to an Israeli hospital for treatment. Ostensibly, Israel has absolutely no interest in helping Assad draw attention from the massacre he is conducting against his own people to focus on the larger Arab-Israeli conflict.

Ostensibly, it would seem obvious that with eyes of the world focused on the nuclear talks with Iran in Kazakhstan, Israel has no interest in drawing international attention to itself. Ostensibly, it would seem apparent that just a few weeks before the visit of President Barack Obama, Israel’s most important strategic ally, to Jerusalem, Israel should avoid taking provocative steps that run counter to American policy. Last week the State Department announced that it already investigates Israel’s petroleum exploration efforts in the Golan Heights. It stands to reason that the release of the official tender was not appreciated by Washington, especially when the President is attempting to promote the Arab peace initiative, based on Israel’s withdrawal from all territory it captured in 1967 [West Bank and the Gaza strip] in exchange for normal relations with the Arab League. At this point it is hard to imagine Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shaking hands with Bashar Assad, but a resounding slap in the face is hardly a choice alternative.

To the members of the Petroleum Council of the Ministry of Energy and Water, these considerations are not as obvious. Otherwise, they would not have granted licenses to drill for oil in a stretch of territory that covers half of the Golan Heights (from the town of Katzrin in the north to Tzemach in the south), especially not now. The process actually began last summer, when the Minister of Energy and Water Uzi Landau declared the Golan Heights to be open for the exploration and production of petroleum and natural gas. Following this declaration, the Petroleum Council received two requests for licenses to drill for oil. It eventually awarded the license to Genie Energy, headed by Effie Eitam, once Minister of Infrastructure in Sharon’s government, a former head of the National Religious Party, and a leader of the settler movement and the extreme right. The English-language Wikipedia site makes no mention of the connection that Genie Energy’s founder, Howard Jonas, now a senior partner in the firm, has with the religious-Zionist movement. This quaint little fact can only be discovered by reading Wikipedia in Yiddish. There it states that Jonas became religious later in life and studied in Jerusalem, and that he supports the Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) Nahal IDF units and various projects to “settle the land.” If Obama were to read that article, he would also learn that Jonas is a donor to the Republican Party.

Last January, Israel took another step to advance its ownership of the Golan Heights. The District Council for Planning and Construction approved the construction of a 400-dunam [around 99 acres] wind farm to produce “green” energy. The farm would be constructed by kinetic energy companies headed by entrepreneur Isaac Sutton.

In 2011, the authorities announced that 350 tracts of land in the Golan Heights would be marketed at no cost. The Head of the Golan Regional Council Eli Malka boasted that over 1,600 families had moved to the Golan Heights over the past few years. It was quite obvious that Malka was not at all disturbed by American protests following an earlier marketing effort in January 2004. Back then, the Bush administration announced that it would seek clarifications about construction in the Golan Heights and called on a halt to all settlement activity by the Israeli government.

To date, Israel’s annexation of the Golan in 1981 has not been recognized by any country. In other words, the region is still considered to be occupied Syrian territory, at least according to international law. More broadly, international law only recognizes the annexation of territory, when it occurs in the wake of a war that ended with surrender of the defeated country, and when that country then ceases to exist. The Golan Heights were part of Syria, a country that has not ceased to exist, meaning that Israel’s annexation of the territory was illegitimate. Israel counters with the argument that the annexation of the Golan Heights was an act of self-defense, to protect Israel from Syrian aggression. Nevertheless, a legal brief submitted to the Supreme Court by seven Israeli academics considered to be leading authorities on international law states clear that the Israeli occupier is prohibited from deriving a profit from the West Bank’s natural resources (the Court determined that it was not authorized to intervene in decisions of a political nature).

Like the decision to advance the construction of 1,600 housing units in the Ramat Shlomo neighborhood of East Jerusalem on the eve of Vice President Biden’s visit to the city in March 2010, the decision to advance oil exploration activities in the Golan Heights on the eve of Obama’s visit was not intended to embarrass the guest. Decisions such as these simply reflect the disconnect between Israel’s attitude toward the Occupied Territories and international consensus about the status of those territories. After more than forty-five years of political and practical annexation, Israel has gotten used to the idea that East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights are an integral part of the State of Israel. For more than forty-five years, Israel’s various governments have continued to establish more and more facts on the ground in these areas, despite the protests of the United States.

In an interview given a few days ago, Egyptian Petroleum Minister Osama Kamal stated that his office has decided to take diplomatic and legal steps, including an appeal to the International Court of Justice, to obtain reparations from Israel for “looting Egypt’s oil,” as he calls it, in the Sinai from 1967 until the withdrawal in 1982. It's safe to assume that if and when Israel finally withdraws from the Golan Heights as part of a comprehensive peace agreement, the Syrians will hand Israel a similar bill for the oil that Eitam et al extracted from its territory.

Akiva Eldar is a contributing writer for Al-Monitor’s Israel Pulse. He was formerly a senior columnist and editorial writer for Haaretz and also served as the Hebrew daily’s US bureau chief and diplomatic correspondent. His most recent book (with Idith Zertal), Lords of the Land, on the Jewish settlements, was on the best-seller list in Israel and has been translated into English, German and Arabic.

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